Thoughts on a dying handcraft
"Why make it so difficult for yourself, when the same image can be painted in oils on a similarly-sized canvas in only a fraction of the time?" asked the Dutch sculptor, Auke de Vries, on a visit to Roswitha.
What are these themes that captivate an artist so much as to make him complicate the creative process of his work to the extent that a timeframe of one year is probably just about sufficient for completion?
Sewing was her first career choice after completing school leaving examinations with the Salvatorian Sisters in Weidmannslust, Berlin. Her excellent results would have been more than enough to take her all the way to gaining university entrance qualification; alas, of the six children, only the three brothers could lay claim to this. Too great was the hardship weighing down on the mother, who had to bring up all six children alone. The father had been expropriated as a "capitalist" by GDR authorities and sentenced to five years in the penitentiary. Her good high school results secured her an apprenticeship with the fashion designers, Gehringer & Glupp on Ku'damm, spanning the period 1955-58.
But she wanted to do more with the textile materials that had become so very dear to her heart; something more than just articles of clothing - so-called applied art. She sent an application to Jan Bontjes van Beek at the Master College for Handcraft and landed right on her feet in the weaving workshop, where she spent the next four years, during the period 1958-62; material studies and weaving techniques were still taught and practiced here according to the old methods that had been passed down through time. It was during one of the accompanying art classes that she met Johannes Grützke; they married in 1964. From then on and until the end of the seventies, she wove exclusively following the patterns Johannes designed for her on large format sheets of card.
It was only once I entered her life as a subtenant that I began trying to draw her attention to her own art of composition - something that was most evident in the way her apartment on Niebuhrstrasse was decorated. As a manic collector, all of her walls were decorated with flea market oddities, with brown-enamelled dishes, curd soaps, hand-shaped objects of every kind, dolls, tin robots, onion-pattern crockery. On top of these, there were the countless weaving implements and mountains of wool reserves crammed into glass cabinets and shelving units.
I took photos of these lovingly arranged articles so that she could see for herself the still lives that lay just below the surface of her very own world. Not long afterwards, she had completed some of her first independent creations, in the form of enamel pot still lives, door and window tapestries, imaginary architectures, curtains, outdoor and indoor stairways, the bricked-up windows and doors of old houses, right up to views into the interior of rooms. She developed a very special fondness for "Trompe l´oeil" compositions.
More recently, she has completed works based on a number of themes from my sculptural work and is torturing herself with two bird's-eye views of my new town establishments at Kirchsteigfeld and Brandevoort. These are especially difficult themes to convert into tapestry as they are put together in much the same way as a tiny mosaic puzzle. It is all of her own choosing, though. Other than those first few nudges in the seventies, I've never since managed to motivate her to a particular choice of theme. A number of her watercolours and oil paintings have such brightness of colour that I feel certain they would be perfect for conversion to tapestry. I have tried to impress the point by offering paid commissions, but unfortunately to no avail.
I still haven't found an answer to Roswitha's so mysterious fascination for this archaic craft. I hear the sounds of her weaving in the background in our apartments in Berlin and Italy, the clack of the treadles, the knock of the weaving comb and the anxious struggle for the right lighting to make sure chosen wool is indeed the right colour. Last but not least, there is of course also the daily wrestle for the time she needs to weave. She has a passionate concern for all adversities, no matter how burdensome they are, and will battle obsessively to get through them.
She views the word 'art' with the deepest suspicion; she is much too entangled in the fabric of her craft. The art market is the last thing she would have anything to do with. She doesn't seek to curry favour for her tapestries or offer them for sale and so they are stacked along the walls in our apartments and studios, until such time as they find their place without any further help from us.
Berlin, April 2011